Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Craft

I did not expect to awaken last Saturday morning with a cold.

So that threw things off a bit, because the new priorities became blowing my nose, drinking chicken broth, and sleeping (in that order).

But I’ve remained committed to becoming a more… committed… writer and a regular practitioner of “deep work”--activities that require focused attention in order to achieve significant intellectual insights.

So I’ve been reading a few books about the practice of writing, and specifically ones that examine how academics can be more productive and prolific.

For me, the benefit of these books is twofold: on the one hand, they can either remind me or make me aware of writing strategies that work, and on the other, they give me a chance to think about the practice of writing as exactly that—a practice and a set of skills that must be implemented (and honed) on a daily basis.

If we don’t write on a daily basis, our “writing muscles” slowly weaken and wither and atrophy, making it that much harder to be a “strong” writer—that is, someone who possesses the intellectual and psychological “fitness” to go the distance on a significant or substantial writing project.

I’m adopting the exercise analogy quite deliberately because, as is the case with physical fitness, studies show that writing for a mere 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference in one’s overall writing health and stamina.

No joke: that’s all you need to do. Write for 15 minutes a day, and over time, you will find the practice of writing easier and, if you’re an academic whose career advancement hinges on churning out books and articles, you’ll succeed in being a more committed and productive writer of academic prose.

Sounds easy, right? Would that it were.

For some people, it certainly seems easy, and in academia, this can make the writing difficulties faced by all of the rest of us that much more difficult to confront, endure, and/or overcome.

This is an issue that is directly confronted in Joli Jensen’s new book, Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (2017).

Jensen prefaces her advice with a simple insight offered by recent research on writing productivity: “In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

I’ll pause for a minute here while all the academics out there reading this post laugh—whether maniacally, hysterically, bitterly, or amusedly—at this description of what it takes to get things done when it comes to scholarly writing.

Because this statement essentially describes the exact opposite of the academic’s day-to-day experience with scholarly writing.

We regularly experience high-stress encounters with writing projects that we all-too-often come to wish we had Never. Ever. Gotten. Involved. With. 

We have all-too-many writing projects that we are now committed to ignoring and avoiding with every last bit of strength that we have, lest we put on an additional 30 lbs from emotional eating or simply collapse to the floor in a fetal position, never to return to upright.

Jensen argues that it IS in fact possible for academics to live the dream—to write productively and experience “frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

She offers several tips for achieving this, many of which echo insights offered by others: establish a comfortable space that is just for writing, pay attention to your schedule and set aside time—remember, it only has to be 15 minutes!—to write, and be aware of the extent to which your energy and enthusiasm for a project will ebb and flow based on your current mindset and the inevitable problems that you confront as you work through your ideas.

Of all of Jensen’s insights, however, I find myself most inspired by this one: “Craftsmanship is the concept that can stabilize us when we feel buffeted by academic anxieties” (10).

I suspect my immediate inclination for this point of view stems from my own experience as a knitter, gardener, cook, DIY-er, and general Jill-of-All-Trades.

As Jensen points out, it’s a mindset not typically fostered--or even respected--in academia, where the emphasis is on “looking and sounding smart,” and as a result, “we may see our writing as a test of our ability to impress, rather than express” (10).

By contrast, approaching one’s scholarly writing with the mindset of a craftsman means “an honest commitment to learning how to do better and better work” because, as Jensen argues, “[t]he ethic of craftsmanship involves a willingness to focus, directly and methodically, on what we don’t yet know so that we can learn how to work with ever-increasing skill” (10).

“What we don’t yet know.” This is a hard pill for many academics to swallow—the idea that there’s stuff out that they don’t yet know and that those things might actually be just as important or interesting as the stuff they actually DO know.

As Jensen points out, much of academia revolves around, well, posturing. Professors are supposed to know it all (or they think they’re supposed to know it all) but because no one can ever possibly know everything there is to know, they end up either pretending that they do or insisting that what they don’t know isn’t really worth knowing.

For my part, I try to use the phrase, “I don’t know,” or “I’m sorry but I don’t know enough about that to answer that question,” at least once a semester in every class that I teach. While this sounds counter-intuitive and counterproductive (I’m relatively sure that academics out there are gasping in horror), it has taught me two things.

1) Students don’t expect their professors to know everything. (This realization was accompanied by significant corollary: “students generally think professors who act like know-it-alls are annoying assholes”).

2) Saying “I don’t know” in an intellectual context opens the door to finding out all kinds of things. Because if you admit that you don’t know, you can ask students about what THEY know—and sometimes often, they know things that I don’t know, and this gives me a chance to find out about that.

If you’re still appalled at the idea that I, a tenured, full professor, has no qualm about standing in front of a room and saying, “I don’t know” and can’t ever imagine doing such a thing yourself, think of it this way: I'm not up there saying, “DUH… I dunno… umm… wow.”

I'm saying, “I don’t know about that yet—what can you tell me about it? I know about X, but I'd never heard about Y—that’s really interesting!”

This is modeling the process of intellectual engagement and exchange, which is, at the end of the day, just as much a part of my job (in my opinion) as the act of transmitting concrete information.

As Jensen points out, when it comes to academic writing, “thinking of ourselves as craftspersons will help free us from becoming poseurs and thereby help us to do better intellectual work” (12).

“Better intellectual work”—and hence better writing and increased intellectual productivity—is precisely what will make us more successful at our chosen professions. As Jensen argues, “A craftsman attitude puts the focus on performing the work, rather than performing a self” (14).

It can be hard to let go of the academic mindset that insists on the need to constantly perform a (smart, intellectual) self.

But I think of it this way: if I (somehow) pretend to be a better knitter than I actually am—and as you read this sentence you will quickly realize how absolutely absurd and impossible it would be to even attempt such a thing—I will never become a better knitter.

Instead, I will eventually avoid knitting altogether because I will know one thing for absolute certain: that doing it makes me feel like a total fraud.

Every encounter will become an anxiety-riddled, high-stakes confrontation with an uncomfortable truth that I’m desperate to hide from the world at large.

The same holds true for the craft of writing. To write well, we need to make our peace with the fact that we always have the potential to write badly, and accept that writing badly really is better than not writing at all, if your standard of measurement is academic success and achievement.

The work that we undertake when we write may not shape up in the way that we initially envisioned it. It may be far better, but it may be slightly worse (an unfortunate truth). We may even have to ask for help along the way, if it starts becoming clear that we’ve botched it a bit. And the final product may not represent an intellectual crystallization of all that we had hoped for when we first began.

But it will be done.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."